This one’s extremely personal, folks.
For Holy Week (the week in the Christian cycle leading up to Easter Sunday), I posted songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on Facebook, one video a day. It started as a whim, but it quickly became a kind of religious practice.
I first saw Superstar about 5 years ago, a local production in which a dear friend played Mary Magdalene. I was moved, in an indescribable way. I engaged with all my body and soul with the messy, human struggle between Jesus, Judas and Pharisees. By the end I was bawling like a baby. After the show, the actor playing Jesus found me and hugged me. I didn’t know what it “meant”, but I knew I’d been given a gift, and I felt utterly grateful to Molly, my friend, and her fellow players.
Every now and then I listen to the soundtrack, or play the 1973 film version. I mainly do it to remember the sense memory of that night with Molly and crew, which will always be the “real” Superstar for me.
The message that Superstar screamed at me through all the songs I posted: human connection is tragically, excruciatingly hard. Our broken, separate-ness sometimes alienates us in spite of every intention to connect, to trust, to love.
* * *
At the beginning, Judas pleads with Jesus from the outskirts of his throng of followers, to listen to him, to be close to him like he was in the early days. Jesus is literally unable to hear him.
And of course this drives Judas to ever greater depths of desperation as his fear and alienation grows.
Jesus seems to find connection with Mary Magdalene, to the jealousy of Judas. But even then, Jesus seems distant, and Mary’s soothing tinged with anxiety…
…and as Jesus and Judas’ clasp hands, then release, the last remnant of connection between them dissipates, gone forever.
Mary’s connection with him doesn’t fare much better. For all that he is inspiring, Jesus is distant, mysterious, and self-absorbed, leaving Mary to agonize over the feelings he provokes.
And Jesus is withdrawn, naturally, because he’s dealing with alienation of his own. Not only is he surrounded by followers who only care for him as a symbol, but his Father to whom he’s entirely devoted, seems to intent on torturing and destroying him for his trouble.
So ultimately, everyone is alienated and lashing out in their pain, falling into patterns of abuser and abused.
And on a cosmic level, we’re left with a Jesus who is incomprenensible, eternally distant, and “loves” us in some strange, abstract way.
* * *
Now, I’m not writing about who Jesus “really” is or was, or challenging the particular Jesus that anyone, myself included, may happen to believe in. I only know what THIS Jesus in THIS piece of art, told me about who I am and what I’m going through. I call this a religious practice because it had exactly the inner effect of spiritual, meditative practice: to kick up the dust, to loosen the clogs bring personal wounds to light, to reveal myself to myself.
And what Superstar revealed was that this painfully distant love looks awfully familiar.
I’m good at ignoring pain. My chiropractor once told me that my physical pain tolerance is much higher than I thought it was, because I’d been coping with a knotted, inflamed neck and back for so long that I’d just learned to live with it and accept it as baseline, as normal. Emotional pain is the same way. My childhood as the oldest son of a Baptist minister was a roller coaster of lost tempers and violent emotions, where a tearful “I love you” made everything OK. I lived out my entire adolescence in quiet terror that I was going to hell because I was “faking” my Christianity. I squandered my early college days unwittingly staving off true intimacy with a pasted on smile. I saddled myself with a disastrous marriage and soul-crushing divorce because I wouldn’t let myself see the glaring warning signs. And now I’m in a marriage, with a young daughter, which is anything but disastrous—but has more than its share of alienation and pain.
I’m unwilling to believe any narrative of my life except the one that I’m deliriously happy and full of love for everyone, where I’m fulfilling all my dreams and enriching myself with art and inspiration. The pain I feel, be it loneliness, rage, guilt, shame, or existential dread, is repressed to the point of background noise, a baseline discomfort unimportant and unrelated to my life of joy and love.
So here I am, trying to be a husband, father, brother, son, and friend. And the narrative I believe tells me I am loving, joyful, inspired, and conscientious, and approaching those relationships in the full spirit of my deepest values. But the rage and guild and shame and loneliness tell a different story. A story I repeatedly ignore. A story where lost tempers do irreparable damage to family bonds. A story where years of shaming provoke increasing withdrawal from loving actions perceived as attacks. A story where people are sometimes alienated and hurt by each other despite their best, most loving intentions.
Jesus Christ Superstar told me that I can no longer ignore this dark narrative that lurks beneath the light, happy one. It’s not even that one narrative is “true” and the other “false,” it’s that by pasting on a smile and only acknowledging the happy story, I’m denying part of myself, and growth is impossible. And sooner or later that stagnation will fester until it destroys me, my wife or my daughter.
I say NO to alienation, NO to denial, and NO to the repressed shame that fuels the cycle of rage! Starting RIGHT NOW I resolve to look this demon straight in the eye, wrestle it to the ground and banish it forever. I want to begin to reclaim my life and my love.
Thank you, Superstar, and thank you Molly. And thank you, all who love me in the midst of pain.